Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review: Gran Turismo 5: Prologue

Polyphony Digital


Let’s not mince words here – Gran Turismo 5: Prologue isn’t even a full game, but it’s flat-out, balls-to-the-wall gorgeous, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking that replays of races you just finished were actual live-to-air motorsport events. Despite its shininess, though, this scaled-back version of the PS3’s next banner title isn’t quite enough of a game in its own right to be worth your time.

Easier to newcomers than its predecessors, Prologue has a more forgiving driving physics engine underpinning the game, and consequently feels a lot more natural to pick up and play. It’s still punishing on anyone not used to fine gradations of movement with the PS3 controller, but rewards precise controls in a way that most games don’t. The recently released Burnout: Paradise, for example, is almost the antithesis of Prologue; the former is an arcade racer that rewards sharp turns, quick decisions, supports highly detailed damage modelling and even manages to punish players in entertaining ways. The Gran Turismo series, though, has always been about realism, something that Burnout decisively eschews.

In its service to racing realism, though, Prologue does miss out on showing any kind of damage modelling on the cars, regardless of how much you end up sideswiping your opponents. This makes the game seem a little sterile, as it’s more like driving (pretty) bumper cars without any rumble feedback. Like most games coming out for the PS3 for the past few months, Prologue supports the newly released DualShock3. If you don’t already own some kind of force feedback-enabled, GT-licensed driving wheel (to go with your Ford / Holden duvet cover, perhaps), it’s probably worth picking up a DualShock3 simply to play this game the way it was always meant to be played – with the player able to feel the nudges from other cars, not to mention the difference in driving surface when you go off the road, rather than having to keep an eye on the speedometer and rely on the changes in the sound textures. The Sixaxis’ clunky accelerometer controls aren’t supported in the game; this is probably a blessing, considering how demanding the control setup is.

Appealing to car aficionados as much as fans of photorealism, Prologue offers 71 retardedly realistic models of cars from a diverse range of manufacturers – many aren’t unlocked or available at the start of the game, though, and it can take a fair amount of time grinding easy levels to get enough credits to buy the pricier cars, some of which you need to own to participate in later races. Disappointingly, the game only offers six tracks, which are spread out around the three racing grades C, B and A (in escalating order of difficulty). Thankfully, you do end up racing slightly different version of these tracks (impressively – on the level design front – this includes racing the same track in a different direction), but having such a small choice of gamespace to inhabit really limits the game’s replayability.

What Prologue does best, though, is make the wait for the ‘real’ version of GT5 even more bittersweet – on one hand, the controls are responsive, the cars handle perfectly, and the environments are glorious – barring occasionally low-res character models at the side of the tracks – but on the other, the wait for the full game could mean that you’re well and truly bored with realistic racing sims by the time 2009 rolls around, additional cars and tracks notwithstanding.

Selling a demo before the full version of a game is an uncommon and ballsy move for a publisher, but it’s one that developers Polyphony Digital are familiar with, having released a prologue version of GT4 to the Japanese market a year earlier than the full version. It’s a pretty savvy business move, if one that won’t endear the company to any but the most hardcore fans. These fans had better save some of their course-related costs, though, as they’ll effectively be buying the game twice, paying $70 for a demo on steroids, then in excess of $100 for what’s effectively an expansion pack, albeit one that will probably give ten times the number of cars and tracks to choose from. If you can hold off and wait until next year to pick the full game when it’s good and ready, you probably should. In the meantime, though, now would be a good time to pick up some Polyphony shares, as the money’s likely to roll in to the company pretty steadily for the next year or so.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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